- Published: 18 August 2020
- ISBN: 9781787331778
- Imprint: Jonathan Cape
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 192
- RRP: $29.99
My sister is a black hole.
My sister is a tornado.
My sister is the end of the line my sister is the locked door my sister is a shot in the dark.
My sister is waiting for me.
My sister is a falling tree.
My sister is a bricked-up window.
My sister is a wishbone my sister is the night train my sister is the last packet of crisps my sister is a long lie-in.
My sister is a forest on fire.
My sister is a sinking ship.
My sister is the last house on the street.
September and July
A house. Slices of it through the hedge, across the fields. Dirty white, windows sunk into the brick. Hand in hand in the back seat, the arrow of light from the sunroof. Two of us, shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing air. A long way to come, up the bone of the country, skimming the Birmingham ring road, past Nottingham, Sheffield and Leeds, breaching the Pennines. This the year we are haunted. What? This the year, as any other, in which we are friendless, necessary only to ourselves. This the year we waited in the rain by the old tennis court for them to arrive. Sounds on the radio: Higher temperatures are coming from the South ... Police in Whitby. The shush shush shush of Mum’s hands on the wheel. Our thoughts like swallows. Front of the car rising and falling like a bow. There is sea out there somewhere. Pulling the duvet over our heads.
This the year something else is the terror.
The road edging away and then dropping from sight, the judder judder judder as we move from tarmac to dirt. Is Mum crying? I don’t know. Should we ask? No answer to that and – anyway – the house is there now and no time to go back or try again or do things over. This the year we are houses, lights on in every window, doors that won’t quite shut. When one of us speaks we both feel the words moving on our tongues. When one of us eats we both feel the food slipping down our gullets. It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we shared organs, that one’s lungs breathed for the both, that a single heart beat a doubling, feverish pulse.
Here we are. Here it is.
This the house we have come to. This the house we have left to find. Beached up on the side of the North York Moors, only just out of the sea. Our lips puckered and wrinkled from licking crisp salt, limbs heavy, wrought with growing pains. The boiling-hot steering wheel, the glare off the road. It has been hours since we left, buried in the back seat. Mum said, getting into the car, Let’s make it before night. And then nothing else for a long time. We imagine what she might say: This is your fault, or, We would never have had to leave if you hadn’t done what you did. And what she means, of course, is if we hadn’t been born. If we hadn’t been born at all.
I squeeze my hands together. Not being able to tell yet what the fear is of, only that it is enormous. The house is here. Squatting like a child by the small slate wall, the empty sheep field behind pitted with old excrement, thorn bushes tall as a person. The suck of stale air meeting new as I push the door open. The smell of manure. The hedges overgrown, the grass and weeds forcing their way through the concrete, the front garden narrow and gnarled up with odds and ends, ancient spade heads, plastic bags, shattered plant pots and their almost-living root balls. September up on the uneven garden wall, balancing, teeth clenched in what might or might not be a grin. The windows shuttered with the reflection of her body and of my face beyond, eyeholes like caverns and, beyond that, our mum leaning exhausted against the bonnet.
The white walls of the house are streaked with mud handprints and sag from their wrinkled middles, the top floor sunk down onto the bottom like a hand curved over a fist. Scaffolding heaped against one wall, broken tiles from the roof shattered on the road. I reach for September’s arm wondering if I might push my teeth down into the skin to see if I can tell, by the contact, what she is thinking. Sometimes I can. Not with great certainty but with a numb buzz of realisation. Like when Mum turns on the radios in different rooms and the timing is off just a little and you can stand in the corridor in between and hear them echoing; but she whirls away out of reach, cackling like a magpie.
I dig for a tissue in the end of my pocket, blow my nose. The sun is just starting to drop but still it burns on my bare shoulders. There are cough sweets in my pocket, soft with fuzz. I suck one into my cheek.
On the wall of the house there is a sign, covered in grime. I wipe it with my tissue until I can read the words: THE SETTLE HOUSE. We have never lived in a house with a name before. Never lived in a house that looks the way this one does: rankled, bentoutashape, dirty-allover. September’s body spins. I close my eyes five times quickly so that she won’t fall and if she does she will land like a cat.
I look back for Mum. She is heaving herself away from the car; her body looks as if it is too much to carry. She has been this way, taciturn or silent, ever since what happened at school. At night we listened to her moving around above us in the Oxford house. She would speak only stray phrases to us, barely meeting our eyes. She is a different person in a recognisable body and I wish she would come back to us. She knocks the garden gate open with her toe.
Help me, she says, as she passes. Ursa said the key was under the frog.
We look for the frog. The ground is loose with insect activity. I dig for a worm and then panic at the feel of it, soft, giving.
Stop mucking around, Mum says and we look bent over in the grass, searching until I find it with my fingers, a stone frog, fat-lipped, button-eyed, almost hidden beneath the undergrowth. Mum tips it with her boot and then groans, no key. Typical, she says. Typical, and then knocks her fists three times against her thighs.
Down the line of the field the May clouds have turned steely and begun gathering and swelling ominously. I point, say, Look.
OK. Quick. Hunt.
We leave the bags in piles and lift the empty pots, kick through the scrub of grass. I find coins in the dirt. Around the side of the house there is a path and a garden with flagstones stacked against the walls, grass torn back to muck, metal rakes abandoned. What might have been a barbecue with a mound of ash inside the split brick structure. There are shells embedded in the side of the house, set into the concrete, and the ground is grainy with sand, loose with sea-smoothed pebbles. I look through one of the windows. Through the glass: the dusky shape of walls, shelves; a pantry perhaps. I spit on my palm and rub. The lighter square of a door frame beyond which there are dim shadows, what might be a sofa or a table, something that could be the first tread of a staircase. Next to me, September presses her face forward, hands curled on the glass, the sweet smell of the perfume we stole from the Boots near our school, the smell of her unbrushed teeth. She goggles her eyes at me, rolls her tongue, pinches my arm. My face looks wrong, the perspective all off, my cheeks longer than they should be, my eyes narrow as coin slots in parking meters.
I look like Mum. Or like her mum she says, our grandmother, in India, where we have never been. September does not look like us. We do not remember our father but she must look like him, smooth-haired, cheeks soft with blonde fuzz, pale-eyed like a snow animal.
The information about him comes drip-drip through the years, rarely wrangled without a fight. He’d met Mum when she was twenty-three and on holiday in Copenhagen, where he lived at the time. He’d followed her around the city for three days. She told us that he was like that. His English was perfect – he had grown up here – but he liked to speak to her in Danish, enjoyed the fact that she could not understand. He was like that too. He had died. How had he died? we asked for four years before she caved. He had drowned in the swimming pool of a hotel in Devon. They had not been together when he died and the three of us, September barely five, me a little younger, had been living somewhere else. It had taken nearly a year for his sister to ring and tell her he was dead. We learned not to ask about him. We do not have the words to describe him. We did not know him. September once said to Mum that he was a howlingbanderlootinggrifter and she had laughed and said it was true but had then gone quiet for a few hours, got the look we had come to recognise. Every three or four Christmases his sister Ursa comes to visit and September and I sometimes try and wring information out of her but she never caves. Ursa drives a convertible car, never comes for more than a day, stays in a hotel rather than at ours. Her hair is short and blonde so that, coming upon her from behind and unawares, we would at times be convinced that she was him; long-lost father, the reason for our mother’s sadness and our existence. The house on the moors belongs to her though she rents it out, does not live here, fills it with people like us who do not know where else to go.
Down the side of the house, the wind picking up a bit now, we find another window, not large but loose-looking, opening inwards when we press on it.
At the front of the house Mum has a rock out of a nearby field and is about to throw it through the pane of glass beside the door. I lift my hands to cover my ears. The blood goes boom boom boom and the alarm grows in my bone marrow and swans up my throat.
There’s an open window, September yells. I think we can fit inside. Mum turns her stony face towards us, mouth drawn down and carved into the skin.
How many of us know our neighbours? Interact with our greengrocer? Know the names of the people who make our clothing?
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